Freeing our countryside of the blight of pylons
Having looked at the issue of pylons blighting our countryside for some time now, members of Stour Valley Underground (SVU) have reached two inescapable conclusions. Firstly, that bulk electricity distribution should not be provided by pylons and, secondly, that local electricity distribution should be implemented via underground cables running at 132kV or lower. All of this can be achieved using currently available technology and, though initially, this would be more expensive than a plague of pylons, it will become a necessity if we are to join our energy partners in Europe in creating a greener, renewable energy for the future. We live in times of great change, and an intelligently managed “Smart Grid” is about to burst upon the scene, linking the needs of generator, distributor and users of energy, so that the whole supply chain runs in a way which is cost efficient, provides more energy and is greeener. This is not sci-fi. It is imminent and it will have a huge impact on our lives, just as much as the internet. To understand this, it is necessary to look at how energy will be generated and distributed in the future. Wind farms will play a huge part and, currently, some vast ones are being built in the North Sea together with new nuclear generators on the coast. Currently, National Grid want to pump all this energy to its users in solution will spoil the landscape, ruin the amenity value of the land, prevent its wider use for the tourist and leisure industries and, most importantly, curtail our enjoyment of the lovely countryside in which we all feel privileged to live. Currently, a European electricity grid is being developed to distribute energy from the wind farms and other renewable sources to where that energy is needed. So, as a weather system tracks across Europe, the wind will be harvested and the energy distributed through the new grid. An earlier technology, called High Voltage Direct Current (HVDC), is being and will be used to distribute this energy, predominantly east – west across Europe. We, in SVU, want to see it used to distribute energy mainly north-south in the UK. And HVDC could rid us of the ugliness of pylons in our valley. If National Grid were to start replacing the current and proposed on-land 400kV power lines with round the coast, under sea HVDC cables, the whole country could slowly build up what would be an effective ring main round the coast, bringing the power up the estuaries to the population centres from where it can be distributed by underground 132kV or less cables. Such undergrounding is already in place in the Dedham Vale and elsewhere and simply needs rolling out throughout the country. This is the recipe for a totally pylon-free landscape for the British Isles, and the process of building it should start now with HVDC cables linking the new nuclear generators, as well as the so-called “Round 3” wind farms in the North Sea down to Tilbury, and thence to London. The same argument holds on the other side of the country, where National Grid propose to destroy the wonderful landscape of the Mendips with pylons. The solution should be to use HVDC cables along the coast of the Severn Estuary to link Hinkley Point to the Sub Station just up the coast. Again, this would be an early step in creating a ring main for the UK. Once the power comes ashore it should be distributed by underground cable. There are far fewer problems with undergrounding 132kV or lower voltage local power cables. There are three ways of achieving undergrounding: direct burial, cut and shut and tunnelling. Direct burial, as the name suggests, involves burying the cables a safe distance under the surface, but has the disadvantage of disturbing the drainage of the land and preventing the cultivation of anything sizeable above it, limiting the use of the land and, indeed, damaging its appearance. Clearly, these downsides are not always a problem and there can be an acceptable solution in many agricultural situations. Cut and shut involves digging a large ditch and constructing a shallow buried tunnel to house the cables. The whole of this is then reburied with much the same impact on the land as direct burial. Neither approach is really acceptable and scars the natural landscape. Tunnelling is the least harmful method, and today’s tunnelling machines dig, mole-like through the terrain at a level never likely to affect the landscape, lining the tunnel as they go and creating a conduit under the land which can provide a readily serviceable duct for all manner of cables, including fibre optic for communications. This technology is already being used in built-up areas. Thus, undergrounding techniques exist to deal with all of the types of landscape. We are at the cusp of a new era in electricity distribution. In the future many, if not most, of us will drive electric cars and even generate some of our own electricity at home. To make all this possible we have to have a smart grid with smart cables and this will mean replacing much of what we now have. It is simply irresponsible to put more money now into patching up the old grid when it is about to become a redundant relic of the past. This is an unique opportunity to embrace the green energy agenda and, at the same time, to implement a totally pylon-free landscape. We truly believe this will happen. The only question is when and how much money will be wasted on short-term patching up of the existing system in the meantime. National Grid want the people of the valley and surrounding area to vote for a “corridor” for yet more pylons. SVU believe the response to this should be a resounding “none of them”. The right solution is to embrace the new technology and to start building an undersea 400kV HVDC ring main for Britain, the first link being Sizewell to London; and to commit to putting all of the local distribution cables underground. The time to start this is right now. We urgently need to press for a decision that restores our landscape; that precious, natural, magnificent landscape that has inspired, amongst others, Gainsborough and Constable. Only by pressing for a truly 21st Century solution can we ensure that our legacy is a fitting tribute to our love of the countryside and demonstrates, in a tangible way, the responsibility of honouring, respecting and maintaining our beautiful countryside.
David Holland Stour Valley Underground